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TAG | Alain de Botton



Against Agape (Restaurants) and All That

Writing in the Spectator, A.N. Wilson, a former atheist, responds to de Botton:

De Botton has little chance of success — either in starting a chain of Agape restaurants, or in persuading bigots on either side of this argument. Meanwhile, very many people who already attend church, synagogue or temple will do so, as has presumably always been the case, in many varied states of mind, which have included that of total unbelief.

It is a sad story, because, between the end of the Victorian age and the 1960s, it really looked as if there was a chance for Christianity, at least, to absorb, and accept, the fact that many people who had discarded the old ways of believing, yet saw the point of a liturgical year, punctuated by ritual observances; they also saw the point of old ceremonies accompanying birth, marriage and death. De Botton, in his attractive comments about Yom Kippur, regrets the fact that secularists do not have a time of year when they can all acknowledge the faults of the past year and try to patch up quarrels — but surely they do: it is the post-Dickensian observance of Christmas. Many who realise the extreme historical unlikelihood of Jesus having been to Bethlehem, let alone having been born there to the accompaniment of angel choirs, see the point of Scrooge’s conversion.


It must always have been the case, in all religions, that there was an enormous difference of belief among the adherents. In pre-Christian times, as you went through the Roman year as chronicled in Ovid’s Fasti, there would have been Epicurean atheists and Platonist worshippers of the Good and those who did not think about such matters, all offering incense at the same altars. The same was probably true of churches and synagogues and temples throughout the world.

Over a century ago, within the Church of England, figures such as Dean Stanley were propounding a position very similar to the one recommended in this book. The Catholic Modernists went further in their rejection of the old mythology. But Pope Pius X ruthlessly stamped them out and the sad fact is that, in all attempts since to explore this kind of territory, churches have reacted in a paranoid and intolerant manner…

Don Cupitt, the former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge ‘came out’ as an actual atheist decades ago, and there was the Death of God school of theology in America, but they did not do much to win a following in those churches which preferred to hunker down behind orthodox stockades. Quite why this is so is for sociologists and psychiatrists to explore. The ‘modern’ phenomenon is not, actually, the apparently radical idea expressed by de Botton. Historically speaking, the modern idea is that religious rites should only be permitted to those prepared to jump through certain intellectual hoops as an entrance requirement.

As soon as the churches began to introduce that Visa control, they guaranteed that they would lose millions of adherents. As de Botton shows in chapter after chapter, it is natural for human beings to follow ritual observances. The intolerance and stupidity of the churches were as much to blame for such people being cut adrift as were the dogmatic atheists, with their fifth-form debating club ‘arguments’ about whether God ‘exists’.





Agape at Agape

Writing in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal, cuddly atheist Alain de Botton offers up a vision of hell with his proposal for a series of atheist “Agape” restaurants (God help us) at which secular folk could come to share in all the fun of Mass, Seder or the like:

The large number of people who patronize restaurants suggests that they are refuges from anonymity and coldness, but in fact they have no systematic mechanism for introducing patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which they segregate themselves or to get them to open up their hearts and share their vulnerabilities with others. At a modern restaurant, the focus is on the food and the décor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections.

Has the man never been on a date?

But I interrupt:

Patrons tend to leave restaurants much as they entered them, the experience having merely reaffirmed existing tribal divisions. Like so many institutions in the modern city (libraries, nightclubs, coffee shops), restaurants know full well how to bring people into the same space, but they lack any means of encouraging them to make meaningful contact with one another once they are there.

With the benefits of the Mass and the drawbacks of contemporary dining in mind, we can imagine an ideal restaurant of the future, an Agape Restaurant. Such a restaurant would have an open door, a modest entrance fee and an attractively designed interior. In its seating arrangement, the groups and ethnicities into which we commonly segregate ourselves would be broken up; family members and couples would be spaced apart. Everyone would be safe to approach and address, without fear of rebuff or reproach. By simple virtue of being in the space, guests would be signaling—as in a church—their allegiance to a spirit of community and friendship.

Though there wouldn’t be religious imagery on the walls, some kind of art that displayed examples of human vulnerability, whether in relation to physical suffering, poverty, anxiety or romantic discord, would bring more of who we actually are into the public realm, lending to our connections with others a new and candid tenor.

This may just be me, but I suspect that images of “physical suffering, poverty, anxiety or romantic discord” are generally incompatible with a hearty meal for all but psychopaths and sadists, categories of people with whom I never like to dine more than is strictly necessary.

But back to de Botton:

Religions are aware that the moments around the ingestion of food are propitious to moral education. It is as if the imminent prospect of something to eat seduces our normally resistant selves into showing some of the same generosity to others as the table has shown to us. Religions also know enough about our sensory, nonintellectual dimensions to be aware that we cannot be kept on a virtuous track simply through the medium of words. They know that their captive audience is likely to accept a trade-off between ideas and nourishment—and so they turn meals into disguised ethical lessons…

…Taking their seats at an Agape Restaurant, guests would find in front of them guidebooks reminiscent of the Haggadah (the text followed at a Passover Seder) or the Missal, laying out the rules for how to behave at the meal. No one would be left alone to find their way to an interesting conversation with another, any more than it would be expected of participants at a Passover meal or in the Eucharist that they might manage independently to alight on the salient aspects of the history of the tribes of Israel or achieve a sense of communion with God.

The Book of Agape would direct diners to speak to one another for prescribed lengths of time on predefined topics. Like the famous questions that the youngest child at the table is assigned by the Haggadah to ask during the Passover ceremony (“Why is this night different from all other nights?” “Why do we eat unleavened bread and bitter herbs?” and so on), these talking points would be carefully crafted for a specific purpose, to coax guests away from customary expressions of pride (“What do you do?” “Where do your children go to school?”) and toward a more sincere revelation of themselves (“What do you regret?” “Whom can you not forgive?” “What do you fear?”).

The liturgy would inspire charity in the deepest sense, a capacity to respond with complexity and compassion to the existence of our fellow creatures. One would be privy to accounts of fear, guilt, rage, melancholy, unrequited love and infidelity that would generate an impression of our collective insanity and endearing fragility.

As I said, a vision of Hell.




Okey Dokey

Via the Guardian:

Plans to build a £1m “temple for atheists” among the international banks and medieval church spires of the City of London have sparked a clash between two of Britain’s most prominent non-believers.

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins’s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”

Dawkins criticised the project on Thursday, indicating the money was being misspent and that a temple of atheism was a contradiction in terms.

“Atheists don’t need temples,” the author of The God Delusion said. “I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence…

The temple features a single door for visitors who will enter as if it were an art installation. The roof will be open to the elements and there could be fossils and geologically interesting rocks in the concrete walls.

“Fossils and geologically interesting rocks.” Feel the excitement.

And then the “humanists” chip in:

Humanists said it was misplaced for non-believers to build quasi-religious buildings, because atheists did not need temples to probe the meaning of life.

True enough, I suppose. I’ve never really understood the attraction of “probing” the meaning of life in the first place. It’s fine if you like that sort of thing but…

De Botton has insisted atheists have as much right to enjoy inspiring architecture as religious believers.

“The dominant feeling you should get will be awe – the same feeling you get when you tip your head back in Ely cathedral,” he said. “You should feel small but not in an intimidated way.”

But according to the Rev Katharine Rumens, rector of St Giles’ Cripplegate church, in the Barbican, where the temple is likely to be located: “Awe is not enough.”

She said: “You need a welcome, a sense of belonging and of wanting to return. It might make you feel so insignificant you wouldn’t know how to start. What would this say to somebody who is mentally frail or nearing the end of their life? How does that really speak to the human condition?”


Another Anglican, the Rev George Pitcher, a priest at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, and a former adviser to the archbishop of Canterbury, “rejoiced” in the idea. “He is referring to a sense of human transcendence, that there is something more than our visceral existence,” Pitcher said.

“Building a monument acknowledges that we are more than dust. Whether we come at that through secular means or a religious narrative, it is the same game.”

In a way, yes. And that’s one reason I’d give this temple a miss, but build away, Alain. Architectural follies are often good for a laugh and a gawp. And in a grim old world that’s worth something.

Proposed cenotaph for Newton by Étienne-Louis Boullée



More Guidance Needed?

The New Atheists are much too shrill for my decidedly agnostic tastes. In many respects, they are on a hiding to nothing. The religious impulse will always be with us and so will be a belief in the supernatural. But not all atheists are new atheists: It’s also quite possible for an atheist to admire much of the structure, cohesion and sense of tradition that some religions bring to society, not to speak of the happiness they can bring to many of their adherents.

Nevertheless these comments by Alain de Botton, an atheist playing nice, go too far:

The starting point of religion is that we are children, and we need guidance. The secular world often gets offended by this. It assumes that all adults are mature – and therefore, it hates didacticism, it hates the idea of moral instruction.

Oh come on: I suspect that there are many secular folk who are very far from convinced that “all adults are mature”.

De Botton continues:

But of course we are children, big children who need guidance and reminders of how to live. And yet the modern education system denies this. It treats us all as far too rational, reasonable, in control.

Really? Has he any idea about the stifling speech codes, the numbskull impositions of zero tolerance, and, to name just one more example, the endless environmentalist nagging that pollute today’s schools and universities.

Wait, there’s more:

We are far more desperate than secular modernity recognizes. All of us are on the edge of panic and terror pretty much all the time – and religions recognize this.

Who is this “all”, I wonder? I do agree that religions recognize that profound anxiety can be part of the human condition. But then so do pharmaceutical companies, and for many people their remedies will be a better route to take, either with the additional help of religion, or without.

De Botton:

Religions are fascinating because they are giant machines for making ideas vivid and real in people’s lives: ideas about goodness, about death, family, community etc. Nowadays, we tend to believe that the people who make ideas vivid are artists and cultural figures, but this is such a small, individual response to a massive set of problems. So I am deeply interested in the way that religions are in the end institutions, giant machines, organizations, directed to managing our inner life. There is nothing like this in the secular world, and this seems a huge pity.

A pity? Nope, I would say that it is a cause for celebration. There was plenty of talk about engineering the soul back in the old Bolshevik days. No-one needs that lot back in town. For those who are looking for the sort of guidance de Botton is discussing, but who believe that the religious route is not for them, there are many other places to look, from family, to tradition, to history, you name it. But to be able to look in that way does require a broadly rational education. And a broadly rational education ought never to deny our own immense capacity (for good or bad) for irrationality.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan

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